Thursday, November 17, 2011

Alcestis by Katharine Beutner

I've been slacking off recently with reading and blogging. I'm not really sure whether it's a result of things being slightly more hectic than usual or the fact that I can't seem to get into the books I've been trying to read lately. Either way, here I am with a finished book.

Alcestis is a retelling of the play by Euripides with a feminist twist. In Greek mythology, Alcestis was married to King Admetus who offended Artemis by failing to sacrifice to her following the wedding. She filled Admetus's bed with snakes, but Apollo stepped in and allowed Admetus to avoid death if someone would volunteer to take his place. No one did, so Alcestis stepped forward. After that, Heracles rescued her from Hades and she and Admetus apparently lived happily ever after.

Despite having taken a classical literature course, I've never read the actual play. Like The Penelopiad, it really motivates me to go back and read more classical literature. In fact, one of my goals for 2012 (and one I may start early) is to dedicate some time to reading The Great Books of the Western World, since I recently discovered that my library has all of them. I also plan to work on a more comprehensive reading list to cover books that I should have read ages ago.

Anyway, I freely admit that I went into this novel at a disadvantage. I can't compare the novel to the original play, which is a shame since there seems to be a lot of interesting critique surrounding it.

What I can say is that I liked it. As expected, it was a pretty big deviation from the generally accepted views of Greek mythology. The male characters generally didn't fare favorably in the novel and were either undeveloped or definitely negative, ranging from abusive to cowardly to almost blundering. They absolutely weren't portrayed as heroic. I think there's something to the fact that the few "good" male characters are the ones who aren't really explored, which obviously makes you wonder if we just don't know enough about them to think poorly of them.

The women are fascinating, however. The story starts with the birth of Alcestis and the death of her mother. After that, she forms a close relationship with her older sister, Hippothoe and views her oldest sister, Pisidice, with confusion. Early on, Hippothoe dies due to her asthma and, more importantly, in Alcestis's view, Apollo's failure to intervene. Her search for Hippothoe in Hades becomes a driving force later in the book. After Hippothoe's death, Pisidice and Alcestis seem to reach an understanding, but their relationship is cut short when Pisidice marries. Pelias remarries and his wife, Philomache, plays a brief but important role until Alcestis is married.

After Alcestis' death, both Hades and Persephone play an important role, for different reasons. Persephone has always been, for me, someone who was just there and played a footnote in Greek mythology. Basically, "by the way, Hades kidnapped Persephone, Demeter got angry and caused winter, Zeus demanded she be returned, but she ate pomegranate seeds, so now we have seasons. The end, now let's move on to the important stuff," so it was really interesting to see how Beutner developed not only Persephone, but her relationship with Hades, her history, and her treatment of Alcestis.

I feel like I'm at a bit of a disadvantage for not having read the play and in hindsight, I wish I had. It would have given me more insight into what Beutner was doing with the characters. As it stands now, this is probably going to go on my "reread" list once I've really done a better study of Greek mythology.

No comments:

Post a Comment